Women make up half the workforce, and yet they are not making anywhere near the progress many expected in advancing to senior executive roles.  It’s been a topic of conversation in organizations for three decades or more, yet much of the money, time and resources spent helping women advance simply isn’t working.  There isn’t enough ROI.  Advancing women and diverse candidates is now a board of directors’ mandate in many companies.  In our view, one of the greatest impediments to progress is among the hardest to address – mind set – the view of women as a monolithic group.   

The “#me-too” and “#times-up” movement only makes the question of how to advance women more urgent.  Organizations are feeling more pressure than ever to get this right.  However, overreacting to fear that more women will come forward is not the answer.  It goes without saying that companies must adopt zero tolerance policies and adhere to high standards when it comes to appropriate workplace behavior.  At the same time, if men become so concerned that they carve a wide berth and avoid developing appropriate relationships with female colleagues, then promising women leaders won’t have male champions who know them, mentor them and advocate for them. 

What we need to do now

What needs to change, is that we need to approach the issue of advancing women with new humility and curiosity.  We need to ask ourselves how to make our workplaces genuinely welcoming, and demonstrate concretely, to women and diverse candidates, that the playing field is level.  While you can’t minimize the impact of having a workplace that feels unsafe, what is just as insidious is unconscious bias that prevents women and diverse leaders from achieving their highest potential. 

When women don’t believe they’ll be considered; when they get advice that they aren’t ready when they see male colleagues with less experience advancing, they become discouraged and disenfranchised.  It’s urgent to solve this, not just to make workplaces a better place, or even to solve the retention problem, but because there is incontrovertible evidence that companies with more female directors and executives grow faster, increase their stock prices, and deliver higher shareholder returns.     

What do women really want, beyond a strong stand on harassment?  They want a fair shot in their careers.  They want to be recognized, developed and considered.  They want promotions.  They want to see other women advance, because it means that the company takes this seriously.  And, by the way, when companies get more women into senior roles, it is certainly a potential check on, and deterrent to, bad behavior. 

Women want companies to stop seeing them as women leaders, and see them as leaders.  And it order to do that, we have to recognize and reject one-size-fits-all approaches.

The key lies in the individual

The fact is that it isn’t even possible to help women advance without looking at them as individuals. Through extensive research in data collected from 14,000 assessment surveys, we have learned that there are far more differences among women, than there are between women and men.  This research busts a lot of the conventional myths about women, including the idea that women in leadership roles have less confidence than men.   In fact, we found by the time they reach manager and mid-level leader, women are viewed as just as confident as men, and they are viewed as stronger overall in executive presence.  (Based on our research and our science-based model of executive presence, the ExPItm – click here to learn more.)  And there are plenty of other surprising and important findings that contradict the belief that what women need is more “executive presence.”

Over the last three decades we have built models for developing women that aren’t working.  This is evident in the proliferation of women’s leadership conferences.  Session after session devolves into a conversation about helping women become more confident.  But when I ask women in these same audiences, “do you lack confidence?” almost none raise their hands.  While this may be unscientific, the data from our assessment backs it up.

The issue here is that when leadership development programs are designed to help women become more confident and assertive, they are missing the fact that many won’t benefit from that advice.  What they need is individual, targeted advice about what their development areas are.  Telling some women to dial up confidence or assertiveness and failing to shine the light on other opportunities they have to become better leaders, not only doesn’t help, it can hurt. 

Put simply, we found women who make it into even the earlier, high potential roles, don’t need to be “fixed” any more than men do.  To look at them this way is to cripple their ability to take simple steps to change the behaviors that hinder their progress.

The power of approaching women leaders differently

We have found, in working in hundreds of organizations, that when we bring a science-based definition, model and common language about leadership presence, it changes how people and organizations address the question of development.  This leads to an actionable path to development for all leaders, based on their own strengths and gaps.

To illustrate the power of looking at women leaders as unique individuals, it is helpful to look at two business cases, that of Amanda and Melissa, two leaders we have worked with to advance their impact and influence. Amanda’s strengths are in authenticity, integrity and appearance.  Her gaps are restraint, composure and practical wisdom, as highlighted in the figure below. Amanda is a leader whom people like and trust.  She’s real, easy to talk with, energetic, passionate and holds herself and others to high standards.

At the same time, when people disappoint her, she lets them know, and they often feel discouraged. She also isn’t demonstrating to the CEO and executive team that she has practical wisdom, the ability to offer strategic advice in a clear, succinct, powerful way.   

Figure: A Tale of Two Women Leaders

two women leaders.png

Melissa might have some traits in common with Amanda, but on balance, she’s a very different leader. She is viewed as strong in integrity and appearance, but that’s where the similarities end.  Others see her as quite capable of getting to the heart of the matter and offering strategic advice (practical wisdom).

They also see her as capable of making decisions and getting things done (confidence). Her challenges are in doing what Amanda seems to do naturally – connect with people, understand their thoughts and emotions, and express interest in them as people. 

The good news is that each leader was able to address her gaps in meaningful ways, once they had the specific direction of what to build on and where to dial back. After six months of coaching, they completed a second assessment. Their peers, direct reports and managers saw a change. Amanda improved not just in the areas she focused on in coaching; her ratings on the ExPI improved in 14 of 15 categories.  Melissa also improved in her focus areas, and her raters also gave her higher scores in 11 of the 15.

What this tells us is that accurate data and individualized intervention make a difference.  Sometimes small changes in the behavior of a leader can make a major difference in how others view them.  Both leaders earned the praise of their managers as a result, and were better prepared for the next assignment, and advancement to the next level in their career trajectory.  

Why it’s dangerous to overlook these differences to help women develop and advance

This example also tells us the importance of understanding specific skills, gaps and capabilities to help a women leader step up to the next level.  If the two women went together to a course designed to make them more assertive and confident, how useful would that have been?  They have different challenges to address and different attributes, and both need to develop in different aspects of leadership to advance.  At a minimum it would have wasted time and could have derailed their progress.   might have “worried” about something that is not an issue. More important, they may never have learned what is holding them back.  The path for these two women is quite different. Imagine the implications for 20, 200s or 20,000 in an organization.   

How to move beyond “one-size-fits-all”

In developing your strategy to advance women leaders, we recommend these steps:

  1. Create a common language of executive presence.

Executive presence is not specific to men or women.  Qualities such as authenticity, integrity, confidence, assertiveness and vision have nothing to do with gender.  When managers and leaders are given real data about how others view their strengths and gaps, they have an actionable path forward.  The feedback helps them create a development plan and gives them precise language that informs conversations with their managers and others.  They can enlist people to help them.

  1. Have fact-based conversations connected to business outcomes

An assessment such as the Bates ExPI is blind to gender and eliminates vague or subjective discussions about development areas.  Our process emphasizes taking time to ask the leader questions, understand his or her business imperatives, and tie those back to approaches that would be more effective.  For example, if a leader is regarded as low in practical wisdom, we can trace this to their need to develop a stronger advisory relationship with the CEO on critical issues.  This can lead to very specific recommendations – such as developing listening skills, critical thinking skills, the ability to ask on-point questions – and come in prepared to give timely, relevant, pithy advice.    

  1. Make the development conversation with men and women more robust

Too many leaders hear “executive presence” and assume they’re being told to dress better, or give better presentations. Defining presence as the qualities of leaders that engage, inspire, align and move people to act expands everyone’s thinking about what it is.  It changes the conversation, gives leaders and their managers much more to talk about, opens up opportunities to try out new approaches, and be evaluated against a concrete action plan.  This robust conversation creates clarity and gets leaders, their managers, and the organization aligned around the goals and outcomes of development. 

  1. Put a stake in the ground to demonstrate your commitment to change

If you believe that the development of women in your organization needs to be more individual, put up your hand to ask the question about whether “one-size-fits-all” approaches need to be reexamined.  Women are always delighted to be selected for programs, but if the work doesn’t help them to advance, they may become discouraged and alienated.  This can even lead women, and men who champion them, to feel cynical about their organization’s commitment to women.  If you’re in a senior role, signify your intent to change the game with a high priority, high profile pilot program that emphasizes individual development such as assessment and mentoring.


The surprising truth about women and executive presence is that they already have many of the qualities required of today’s leaders to be powerful, effective senior executives.  What we need to do is level the playing field, not by creating more programs, but by making the ones we have more effective.  Recognize that the individual development journey of every leader, male or female, is the best route to building the strengths of the best and brightest, increasing the number of ready-now leaders, and ensuring a bright future for your company.   

Add a Comment: